LUIS ALBERTO URREA
(EDITOR'S NOTE: For the past nine years, as part of the
Southwest Literature Project, the Arizona Historical Society,
Friends of the Pima County Public Library and others have hosted
the Lawrence Clark Powell Memorial Lecture. The lecture is
presented by a notable author whose body of work reflects the
values, landscape, history and culture of the Southwest.
Presenters have included Denise Chavez, Charles Bowden, Patricia
Preciada Martin, Richard Shelton, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Luci
Tapahonso, Gary Paul Nabhan and Craig Childs. The following is
the lecture that was delivered by Luis Alberto Urrea in 2005. It
concerns the creation and development of his bestselling novel,
The Hummingbird's Daughter).
Chinese word for writing is Wen. The practice of writing,
like its contemporary, Kung-Fu, was a kind of martial art in its
disciplines and daily practice. It was known in some quarters as
Wen-Fu. It is enlightening to note that the word "Wen" came from
the most ancient of roots. Like many things still haunting
Arizona, Wen is a remnant from the prehistoric shamanic age. I
have seen it explained by scholars as the most ancient surviving
Chinese word. Its definition is: "the summoning of spirits." So
we writers, whether we understand it or not, are playing a
spirit-game. All along the line, we are sparring with the
ancient ones and the ancestors; we are calling up hordes of
angels. Gather 'round' –it's a ghost story.
* * *
know what it is about Arizona. Why do I come back to it
repeatedly? Why do I write about it? I wasn't born here, nor was
I raised here. I never even saw Arizona until the obligatory
family drive to the Grand Canyon in our '49 Ford. I was probably
seven, which is a good auspicious number for mystical purposes.
neither the trip, nor our visit to the Petrified Forest, nor our
gawk into Meteor Crater. What I do remember is my father's wrong
turn somewhere out there in the back of beyond, and our
ill-fated rattle down an Ed Abbey kind of sand-and-boulder
two-track road. The idiotic strains of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down,
Sport" sizzled on the radio as we entered an Indian village.
of the village were not happy to see us. My mother cried,
"Indians! Roll up the windows, Alberto!" I remember their square
houses and their startled faces as we rolled in. And atop the
houses, I could swear it now in a court of law, there were
eagles. My dad, the immediate expert in all matters new and
baffling, announced: "They keep them chained to their roofs for
The men of
the village pointed behind us and made it abundantly clear that
we should hurry back in the direction we had come. There was
nothing at all New Age about it, and nobody felt a surge of
Mexican-American/Native American brotherhood. No medicine man
gave me a dream catcher or spoke eternal secrets. What he said,
and rightly so, was: "Get lost!"
shattered pieces of this ancient memory are more vivid to me now
than the washed-out Instamatic pictures my mother snapped at the
top of Bright Angel Trail. Eagles? Really? Yeah, man. "Tie Me
Kangaroo Down, Sport"? I added that. I'm a writer. I can't help
myself. That was actually the family drive to Yellowstone. Those
Arizona eagles, however, are pure 100% Wen-Fu for me.
* * *
visiting Arizona on my own in the 1980s. I was fueled by the
mythologizing of Mr. Abbey and Mr. Bowden, and I imagined, like
many Wen-Fu practitioners before me, that if I walked down a
trail or two and touched a saguaro, I would be transformed into
a great western writer. I long for that innocence now. I wish I
were still in that place where the first rattlesnake and the
first javelina are the only ones ever seen by modern man!
to Arizona in earnest in 1995. I had been working on a book
about Teresita Urrea, "The Saint of Cabora," also known as "The
Mexican Joan of Arc," also known as "The Queen of the Yaquis."
But not by any Yaquis I ever met.
lived for a time around Tubac. It was rumored that she had come
up to Tucson to shop in the original version of the Elysian
Grove Market in your old-town barrio. She had finished her days
in Clifton and Morenci. I had already been working on the book
for ten years. I was living in Boulder, Colorado. On one of my
many research trips to Tucson, I had finally met Mr. Bowden
during a brief happy hour in a bar on Speedway, where he baffled
the biker I was traveling with by asking him the shamanic
question: "Are you a good man?" The biker fretted and gulped
beer for the next hour, unable to answer.
pleased by his shamanic work, Chuck turned to me and delivered
three venerable utterances of the Tao of Bowden: 1) "Boulder
will make you commit suicide." 2) "If you want to write about
Yaquis, go where the Yaquis are!" 3) "Finish your book, damn
So I went
home, collected my Jeep, and entered Pimeria Alta from the
north, dropping down I-25 and skimming the Front Range of the
Rockies. There were ghosts everywhere. Just outside Santa Fe, a
car full of raza farm workers flipped and exploded across
the road, scattering humans and clothes all the way to the fast
lane. I cut west on 40 and dropped south into Arizona like a
dream. In a border bar I danced with a Navajo woman whose
husband's feet hurt too much from diabetes. When we were done,
she looked up at me and said, "What are you?"
I went into
my usual explanation: "Well, I look white, but I'm a Mexican!"
said, "Oh. I thought you was a Leo."
* * *
that makes Arizona alive with Wen for me, aside from the weird
landscape, or the Spirits, is the feeling that here there is
still a tradition of Grand Old Men and Grand Old Women. I like a
place where you can go and shake the hand of some ancient
gunslinger or poet who has been central to a place. A bridge to
the history and soul of the dirt where I stand.
already too late to meet Mr. Abbey. But I had the great
opportunity to sit in Julian Hayden's yard and watch him toss
pebbles at cats so they wouldn't eat his birds and lizards. And
Brian Laird, well on his own way to becoming a grizzled Tucson
avatar, introduced me to Larry Powell. I don't include Dick
Shelton on this list, by the way, because he just isn't old yet.
He'll outlast us all.
was sitting in a corner of the Laird family's old bookstore near
Grant Road. Although he wasn't overwhelmingly impressed with
meeting me ("What book did you write?" he asked; and when I told
him what books I had written, he glanced aside at Laird and
said, "Hmm"), he stood and shook my hand in a firm, dry grip
that was cool as bone and in no way shy. Dr. Powell made it
clear I was not to write foolishness. This has stuck with me,
since I think I made a fool out of myself trying to tell him
about Teresita in three minutes while well-wishers and fans
vectored in on him for a blessing. It has also stuck with me
because I have dedicated a good percentage of my career to
what I was trying to tell Dr. Powell.
to tell us tales of Teresita in Tijuana. I was just a boy, and
my aunt La Flaca, blind in one eye and squinting through her cat
eyeglasses, would peer into the lurid orange and green flames of
the kerosene heater and intone: "You have a Yaqui aunt who can
fly! She was dead one time, but then she wasn't dead! She could
heal with a touch. She's a pinche Saint!" Wow. This was
big news for a Tijuana dirt-street kid. It is worth noting here,
however, that I was also told such things as the following: The
old Mexican demon, El Cucuy, lived in La Flaca's closet and
guarded her and grandma's girdles and panties. Should I go
poking around in there, I would go straight to Hell in his
clutches. I was also warned that the pyramids of ashes from the
obsessively smoking cones of church incense all over the house
were actually the souls of dead men! If I touched them and they
scattered, the souls of the dead would fly all over the house
like an invasion of Satanic wasps!
assorted Wen took place in a house that was also quite haunted.
The Urreas have a long history of courting boogies and hoodoos,
and the old house had a notoriously cranky Presence that hid in
a basement room and supposedly tossed exorcists around like
dolls. My first memory, in fact – pre-dating the legendary
Ritual Eagles – is of watching smoke come under my bedroom door
and coalesce into the shape of a man. He was pretty dapper, as
fiends go, since I clearly remember him as wearing a fedora and
topcoat. I had no way of knowing that the report of the fedora
would greatly alarm La Flaca, since it was apparently proof that
my grandfather Juan had risen from the grave!
I can be
forgiven for believing, after a few years, that my flying Yaqui
aunt was just a load of hooey.
was starting my sporadic teaching career. I was handed an
article that actually mentioned Teresita. I couldn't believe
it. I kept saying, "She was real?" What I meant was: she
was real enough for somebody to write about her. Everybody knows
that Wen-Fu myths and lies are perfectly real; we believe in El
Cucuy and La Llorona and Bigfoot when we hear about them. You
don't fool me—you may not believe in them here in this hall, but
when they get us all out in the dark, by a campfire, or near a
ruined crumbling adobe at midnight ... well. That's a different
story. They're suddenly as real as we are, but in different ways
than we are. So Teresita worked her greatest miracle in my life:
she went from being a them to a
* * *
in Arizona know her story all too well. Her pictures are in the
Historical Society's archives. Her body is hidden in Clifton.
Her descendants live here, some of them in Tucson. Tucson is
probably the only place where you can see Teresita live again in
a one-woman theatrical show. So I will keep her history brief.
born in Sinaloa in 1873, the daughter of a teenaged indigenous
girl and the hacendado Tomás Urrea. Genealogists tell me Tomas
was the cousin of my great-grandfather Seferino. I know that
doesn't make Teresita my aunt at all, but I don't understand the
algebra of genes and epochs. Besides, in Mexican homes, any
older woman in the family is your aunt.
like me, was a God-crazy child. I knew that I recognized her
when I saw that she spent time like I did seeing God in insects
and trees, hoping to somehow levitate or give evidence of the
stigmata during Mass. I was, of course, distracted by adolescent
girls and Jim Morrison. She was not. This is why she is the
saint and I am writing about her. I would prefer to be able to
heal the sick and ease human suffering with a touch of my hand.
But the shamans and medicine people I studied with told me that
was, ultimately, the point of my writing. I still don't know if
that's a blessing or a curse.
* * *
she was a Yaqui woman, but Teresita was born too far south.
There is evidence to suggest that she was either Mayo or Tehueco
or some combination of the two. All three tribes spoke
variations of Cahita, the ancient and holy language of the
Yaquis. Since one of her family line lives here in Tucson–my
cousin Esperanza is a daughter of the Mayos–I like to think of
Teresita as having roots in that tribe.
left Sinaloa and moved in a great exodus to Sonora. They settled
forty or forty-five miles outside of Alamos on a ranch called
Cabora. Before they left, Teresita began her studies with a
healer woman. Teresita wanted to have the knowledge of herbs, so
she wanted to become una hierbera. She wanted to then
learn the more mystical aspects of healing, so she wanted to
become a curandera. As she grew older, and was allowed to
see the mysteries of womanhood, she became a midwife, una
partera. And in the fullness of her powers, when she
accepted her own indigenous legacy, she was accepted as a
medicine woman, una hechizera.
teacher was an Indian woman named Huila. Huila, in her language,
means "Skinny Woman." I like that, since my aunt's name, La
Flaca, also means "Skinny Woman." And my aunt married someone
who came out of Teresita's story. One of my first lessons in
Arizona was this: if we are not living in a circle, we are
living in a spiral, and history swirls around us like the
chambers of a nautilus shell.
Huila was a
powerful woman forced to be humble. For example, the colonialist
attitude of mestizo Mexico would have never squandered much
energy on an old Indian woman that the masters recognized as a
washer-woman they called Maria Sonora. Since most of the
historians of record in Mexico are mestizo or European men, they
gave her no attention at all, and they gave Teresita herself
condescending write-ups. (She is often cited as an "hysterical
female" given to religious panics and menstrual extremes.) The
People of the tribes around Cabora, however, saw Huila for the
powerful hechizera she really was.
I had, in
my ten years of haunting library archives and basements,
accumulated many pages of data about Teresita. But I had nothing
on Huila. And how could I explain Teresita's initiation into the
sacred (though some of my Baptist friends say it is demonic)
without her teacher? Enter Cousin Esperanza.
that is good about having a name like Urrea is that it is so odd
it makes an impression. When Urreas travel, several of us make
it a habit to open the phone book and see if there is another
one in town. Now, since Mexico has officially invaded and
colonized the United States, chances are good we'll find a
cousin. I know there's a Blanca Urrea, for example, living in
the unlikely barrio of Metairie, Louisiana.
When I got
to Tucson, I found I had two branches of my family I didn't
know. One branch is Apache. The other is Mayo and Yaqui.
Esperanza is on the latter team, and when I got here with little
money and no food, she delivered a long river of green tamales
to me. But she also told me tales of her own grandmother the
great Mayo medicine woman of El Júpare, Sonora. I speak her name
with respect now because I learned that she is present when
called: Maclovia Borbón Moroyoqui. Aside from having the perfect
name, Maclovia became, in my Wen-Fu way, my own grandmother. As
Esperanza fed me killer tacos on the south side of Tucson, she
also fed me tales of the teachings and medicine of Maclovia. And
my book learning taught me what you historians of the Mayos
already know—Moroyoqui was one of the great warriors of the
tribe, a rebel leader. So here I was at the confluence of the
Teresita Urrea and Moroyoqui bloodlines, learning personal
information about how that medicine worked. Esperanza even gave
me Maclovia's rebozo, so I would feel her near me when I worked
on my book. And here was another miracle from Teresita: I
suddenly had my Huila so that she could have her again in the
ritual of my book, and you could learn Huila's lessons for the
fierce, Maclovia was fierce, and Esperanza, as her sons and
husband can tell you, is fierce. When I suggested that
Teresita's story should be told by a woman because a man
couldn't fully grasp a woman's story, she shook her head. "You
God-damned men," she said. "If you want to know something about
women, why don't you ask?" Oh, I thought, Okay.
And she said: "And when women tell you something, why don't you
Zen master Esperanza.
(to be continued,
* * *
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